Confession: I once broke a standing date and left a friend waiting on me for a very, very long time.  We’re not talking minutes or hours.  We’re talking days.  Four of them.  Even worse, I knew ahead of time that I was going to do it.  I tried to tell him.  I really did.  But it was, you know, one of those communication things.  He just didn’t get it. 

In retrospect, I think the problem, at least part of it, was one of leggedness.  He had four compared to my standard-issue, bipedal two.  Which made communication an issue at times. 

We’ll call the horse Buddy, not his real name because, after all, he did nothing wrong and I wouldn’t want to chance tarnishing his standing in the herd.  You’d be surprised at what websites some horses get their hooves on these days. 

The background is this:  Buddy and I had a standing arrangement.  We’d meet every day.  I’d talk, he’d whicker and whinny.  I’d pat him on the back, he’d nuzzle my hand.  Standard mammalian bonding stuff.  Now and then, one of us – usually me – wouldn’t show up, but then we’d see each other the following day.  No harm, no foul.  Forgiveness all around, like friends do. 

Then one day, I had to go out of town for the better part of a week.  Couldn’t help it.  Unavoidable.  I tried to tell to tell Buddy about my plans, but, like I said, there were difficulties with leggedness . . .

As I approached the pasture four days later, Buddy looked up from his browsing and, instead of ambling leisurely in my direction as usual, he picked up the pace and slow-trotted toward me, neck arched upward, ears pointed forward, tail held high.  A happy horse, clearly more eager than usual for our meeting. 

My own smile broadened.  It felt good to be welcomed home. 

But then something happened.  It was like a pot being suddenly shifted from somewhere on the back-burner of Buddy’s brain to right up front and center. 

Half-way to what promised to be a joyful reunion, Buddy thought of something:  Hey, where’ve you been?  You blew me off and kept me waiting – for four days.  In fact, I’m more than a little annoyed with you.  Buddy came to a sudden halt.  He raised his head high, looked me dead in the eye for a moment, then tossed his head to the side and turned and walked away, ignoring me completely. 

Message delivered.  Loud and clear.  Unacceptable human behavior.  Don’t blow off your equine friends.  Not this one, mister.  

I could hardly blame him.  I felt bad.  I gave him a minute or two alone, out of respect for his feelings and to acknowledge the validity of his choice.  Then I approached him and reconnected with gentle pats and a soothing voice.  In the absence of a common verbal language, it was the best I could do to ask for forgiveness.  And in the end, of course, he gave it, as friends do. 

As a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy, I recognized what Buddy probably didn’t.  I had just received behavioral training from a horse who had employed what psychologists call a limited hold. 

Limited holds represent a window of limited opportunity for reward.  Clearly, in this case, I had been denied the rewarding welcome I had hoped for because I’d failed to respect the boundaries of appropriate response time Buddy had placed on that window – even though I didn’t yet know precisely where those boundaries were. 

In the past, a single day’s delay in meeting had been acceptable.  Four, apparently, were not.  Would a three-day delay be okay?  What about two?  Or was the boundary firmly set at a single day?  I would only be able to tell through what trainers call behavioral prospecting, a kind of experimenting around the edges of the newly emerging behavioral requirement.  Buddy was employing a technique I myself had used to help coach chronically late dolphins into more behaviorally acceptable response times.

I once worked with a dolphin named Moe who consistently showed up late for side-by-side line-ups with a few of his fellows. 

Rather than worrying endlessly over the whys and wherefores of Moe’s behavior, I knew the most effective means I had for helping the dolphin overcome whatever was motivating his lateness was to treat the issue on a simple, behavioral basis.  That meant kindly, but firmly, establishing boundaries around the undesired behavior of tardiness. 

In theory, the solution was a straightforward one: fish rewards for punctual arrivals when called; no rewards for lateness. 

The problem, as it often is in such cases, was that practice wasn’t as clear-cut as theory.  Moe wasn’t arriving just a little bit late.  He was missing the party almost altogether.  Which meant that expecting perfect punctuality from the get go would have been an unreasonable request. 

As a starting point, I began using a stopwatch to time Moe’s responses.  At first, the dolphin would receive minimal rewards – a single fish or two – merely for showing up any old time he pleased.  Rewarding lateness, although not ideal, was necessary at first simply to keep Moe motivated to respond at all. 

But once I had a reliable fix on the animal’s response time, the parameters of the game began to change.  When Moe arrived within his usual comfort zone or later, he was no longer greeted with fish snacks. 

Much like a human driver turning a car’s ignition switch and being met only by ineffectual gasps from the engine, this perplexed Moe at first.  And, like a human who grumbles and curses at a dying engine, Moe made his displeasure known.  Initially, Moe responded to the absence of his usual reward by slapping his pectoral fin against the surface of the water, or by opening his mouth and rapidly bobbing his head in my direction.  Hey, I’m here, he seemed to be saying.  Feed me.

Nothing doing.  No reward. 

It must have seemed to Moe that his normally companionable, fish-dispensing primate had malfunctioned. 

So, like any driver with a stalled engine, he began to tinker and experiment.  Behavioral prospecting.  A psychologically predictable response to the sudden disappearance of a normally reliable source of behavioral reward. 

Within a few training sessions, Moe began prospecting in the desired direction.  From a subjective standpoint, Moe’s response time hadn’t seemed to change at all.  But the stopwatch didn’t lie.  Whenever the dolphin arrived even a tiny bit earlier than usual – presto! –  the fish rewards started flowing again.  Shortly after each new, time-based reward paradigm became clearly established, the window of opportunity narrowed again. 

Once Moe grasped the pattern, the training became easier.  Larger, but still manageable, reductions in response time could be requested of Moe without risking frustration.  Big progress called for big reward, and Moe was well-motivated to continue improving his response time in order to receive ever-increasing jackpots of fish.

Eventually, Moe responded to work requests from trainers with a lightening quick speed swim that left white water in his wake.

It seemed that Buddy, the horse, was using a similar approach with me.  He might have made a fair animal trainer.  In fact, one might argue he has already become one.  Through his willingness to employ limited hold training, the horse has taught a bipedal primate something about relationships, reliability, and the deleterious effects of tardiness. 

Buddy succeeded in bridging the divide between species and overcoming the communication barrier posed by a mere matter of other-leggedness.  I’ve never been late by four days again.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2017

You are reading

The Dolphin Divide

Pass or Fail: You Make the Call

Why the Millennial generation ignores behavioral boundaries.

Why Giving Up Sometimes Makes Sense

Quitting for now can mean winning later on.

Animal Intersection: The Intelligence-Happiness Connection

How humans and animals derive joy from working together.